In the first session of my writing groups, members first introduce themselves by name and if they wish, the kind of cancer they are living with. In every group, some happily declare their treatment is behind them. They are “in remission” or “cancer-free”–words everyone longs to be able to say as their treatment regimens conclude. “In remission” signals a reprieve from the relentless routine of doctor’s appointments, scans, tests, surgeries and weeks, even months of treatment. It declares one’s return to a so-called “normal” life, yet more often than not, “normal” does not have the same meaning it did before cancer. Treatment provided structure, routine, and defined the days before them. Now “in remission” is also readjustment. Returning to life as it was before cancer is not easy–it may not even be possible.
“In remission.” You‘re one of the lucky ones. Cancer not only alters our bodies, it changes the way we experience the world. Despite the wish you may have to do so, you realize it’s nearly impossible to return to your former life–you’re not the person you were before cancer. You experience life differently than before.
Your treatment has been successful, at least for now, but you live with the knowledge that as a survivor, you may not be guaranteed a permanent state of grace. You may have many years left to live; perhaps less. One thing is certain: you never take anything for granted.
I will never be the same
knowing how effortlessly death
rests in the cells of my body,
yet with each step I am willing
to say yes to the chances I take,
to the hope no one can take from me
here in the midst of my recovery…
(“Hiking in the Anza-Borrego Desert After Surgery,” by Francine Sterle, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)
There’s something else. You may even feel a little guilty, especially when, in your cancer support groups, you know many whose prognoses are less favorable and who may well lose their lives to cancer. You’re relieved, yes, but it can seem unfair. Why have you survived while others may not?
You may question your life, how you can make it matter, live in a way that “makes a difference.” And yet, what about learning, or re-learning, what it means to live in the present, to cultivate gratitude, to even give yourself time and space to re-discover the simple pleasures of living?
“I’ve gone from thinking, ‘Why me?’ to thinking, ‘Why not me,” a former writing group member said. “In the beginning, it was comforting to think of fighting to survive… I believe that I should have a powerful drive to accomplish something…a goal for which I need to continue to survive. But,” she confessed “I don’t find that drive in me.”
Her words resonated with me. I recalled the self who was so goal-driven before cancer, eyes always on what lay ahead, stressed and always racing from one thing to the next. Cancer was my “whack” on the side of my head. I became aware of how I had been missing out on the joy of the present—the ordinary moments that are so much of what living is about. If I was to learn anything from my experience, it was about slowing down and learning to be present in ways I’d all but forgotten how to do. It was about learning to live again, but differently.
What is living about for those lucky enough to be “in remission?” N., a former group member wrote, “I love the things I do day by day. I hike with one beloved friend. I spend time in the wonderful garden of another. I meet others for coffee and conversation. I meet these friends with pleasure and leave them with a joy and benefit to my mind and spirit…”
Like so many of us, N. rediscovered comfort and meaning in the ebb and flow of everyday life, small pleasures of love, companionship or nature. “It frees me from having to make every moment count,” she wrote. “It takes off pressure that would exist if I had to accomplish something in particular before I die…”
This is a spring he never thought to see.
Lean dusky Alaskan geese nibbling grass
seed in his field, early daffodils, three
fawns moving across his lawn in the last
of afternoon light…
He smells the hyacinth
and can feel hope with the terrible crack
of a thawing river loosen in his heart…
(“In Remission,” by Floyd Skloot, in The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)
I recall the wisdom of so many of the writing group members more than a few times each year, because, despite my resolve, it’s much too easy to slip into old habits of being, putting my daily life on fast forward or being consumed by a list of daily “to dos.” It’s easy to forget the real task of being alive is to be present, pay attention, and re-discover the gratitude for my everyday life.
A., a member of one of my former writing groups for several years who subsequently died from rare form of leukemia in 2012, chose to spend her final years in the quiet beauty of the California redwoods, living and working in a small cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains, a source of inspiration and peace for her. She inspired in all who knew her a reverence for life, the beauty she saw in and expressed in how she experienced the ordinary ebb and flow of each day. Her poetry and words linger in my mind, luminous and alive. In her poem, “Directive,” she reminds us how abundant the gifts of what we consider the ordinary are, of the joys found in those small moments of daily life.
Remember the commonplace, the wooden chair on the white planked deck,
trees kneeling in the rain and deer prints
leading into elegant rushes. A kinder place
cannot be found: where you sit at the top
of shadowy stairs, the window lifted…
Let me speak for you: there’s comfort
to be found in fatigue, in letting principles
fall like stones from your pockets…
Fall into the ordinary,
the rushes, the deer looking up into your heart,
risen, full in the silver hammered sky.
(From “Directive,” by A.E., 2010, personal communication)
- “In Remission.” Explore the term, what it means–or meant–to you. What were the lessons of cancer? Did you live your daily life differently than before cancer?
- “Remember the commonplace…” Re-read the excerpt of A.’s poem. What in the ordinary aspects of daily life have you come to appreciate?
- Practice gratitude. Take notice; find gratitude for the simple joys of living. Choose one small moment from any day, whether from nature, loved ones, your daily routine—a simple pleasure that sustains, inspires or offers you joy. Describe it in as much detail as you can; perhaps you’ll find a poem or a story lurking there.